It’s easy to be skeptical about the idea of a movie-musical based on the music of The Beatles. After all, we’ve been there before with 1978’s “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the Robert Stigwood-produced travesty that took the most twee aspects of The Beatles’ oeuvre, cast The Bee Gees and Peter Frampton, lathered everything in pastels, and stank to high heaven (barring Aerosmith’s evil cover of “Come Together”). It played like “Yellow Submarine” without the drugs, or “Help” without, well, John, Paul, Ringo and George.
So, although I love director Julie Taymor to death — she’s one of the boldest visual stylists working in cinema today, as displayed in “Titus” and Selma Hayek’s “Frida” — I will admit to great trepidation when the lights went down and her new film, “Across the Universe,” a Beatles musical, started to flicker onto the screen.
There is actor Jim Sturgess, sitting on a cold English beach, and he looks straight at the camera and begins singing the John Lennon-penned “Girl.”
“Is there anybody going to listen to my story, all about the girl who came to stay? She’s the kind of girl you want so much it makes you sorry; still you don’t regret a single day.’‘
It’s an almost a capella version, with just the faintest ghostly tones hanging somewhere behind the vocal. As he sings, a chaos starts to rise, and the screen fills with images of protests, cops, riots, war, and a wild, frenzied version of “Helter Skelter” drowns out “Girl.” Right then and there, Taymor had me hooked.
What’s striking is how Taymor proceeds to weave these well-known songs into the film’s story in unexpected ways. As the director said in a phone interview with The Japan Times, “I’m not layering these songs on top of a story; they are the story. . . . The story is the lyrics. There’s only a half an hour of dialogue, so the lyrics are what carry the emotions.”
“Across the Universe” was originally called “All You Need is Love,” when Taymor first got the story outline from the film’s producers (a title “which made me puke,” says Taymor), and while it was set in the ’60s, it was strictly a love story, with no politics, drugs or racial issues.
Taymor changed all that in a hurry. “I told them I’ll only do it if we can darken it up, and get the full range of The Beatles’ music in there,” she says.
The film focuses on six characters who all come together in New York City’s late-’60s hippie counterculture. Liverpool lad Jude (Sturgess) takes a boat to America, looking for his father, a wartime G.I., who abandoned him as a child. He meets Ivy League dropout Max (Joe Anderson) and finds himself falling for Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), Max’s sister, whose boyfriend has just died in the Vietnam War.
Max and Jude move to NYC, where they rent rooms from a Janis Joplin-styled singer named Sadie (Dana Fuchs, and yes, she’s sexy. Also joining them are Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy), a guitarist who left Detroit after the riots, and Prudence (T.V. Carpio), a closeted lesbian who fled the Midwest for more tolerant climes. Lucy eventually moves to the city as well, falling for Jude and becoming heavily involved in the antiwar movement after Max is drafted.
This might all sound rather familiar to anyone who’s seen “Hair,” but there’s one big difference. As the director explains, “In this kind of movie musical, the big production numbers — which are the songs — are not done by the old-fashioned, Broadway, get-everybody-up-and-dancing way, but by the use of cinema in every single way it can be used to express the songs.
“There are 150 or more locations in this movie; it’s a real ‘movie’ movie. You’re in Vietnam, you’re at the Detroit riots, you’re in a Washington D.C. march. But when they go into song they’re in an inner reality, a projection of their own emotions, or a hallucination or into the essence of what that moment is about. Then you go back to the reality of the scenes.”
Taymor deftly walks a line between giving you what you expect with some songs and offering radical new interpretations on others, both musically and in the context in which they’re used. Thus, “I Am the Walrus” is sung by U2’s Bono playing a Ken Kesey-inspired character who turns everyone onto acid; the resulting psychedelic madness is no surprise with that tune. Ditto for “Revolution,” which Jude sings at a shady student radical leader who’s putting the moves on Lucy, and that song’s distrust of politics informs the film.
But on other songs, there’s a whole new spin. Prudence sings “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” in the most melancholy way, while watching a girl she secretly pines for with her boyfriend; she walks down a football field in her cheerleader uniform in a trance, oblivious to the flying tackles occurring around her (all choreographed in eerie slo-mo to the music). And “I Want You” — in a truly inspired moment — is sung by Uncle Sam from a military recruitment poster when Max reports for the draft.
“You get new meaning out of the lyrics, and that’s a homage to their power,” explains Taymor. “The Beatles have given us something that really has room for growth and interpretation. I mean, think about Shakespeare — how many different artists have interpreted those works?”
Tampering with Beatles’ songs is always a risky business — again, see the Bee Gees’ “Pepper” or the recent “Love” remix CD — but Taymor didn’t particularly worry about committing sacrilege.
“There have been so many covers of The Beatles over the years, good and bad, but sometimes better!” she laughs. ” ‘Eleanor Rigby’ sung by Ray Charles is a revelation, y’know?
“I think Elliot Goldenthal and T. Bone Burnett (who arranged the songs for the film) just did such an extraordinary job at paying homage to The Beatles, but not imitating them. Because, as Elliot said, if it’s too much like The Beatles, it’s worse — you’ve got to be different.”
This die-hard Beatles fan can point to several songs in “Across the Universe” that are also revelations: Jo-Jo’s pensive, almost Marvin Gaye-like interpretation of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” shortly after Martin Luther King’s assassination; a full gospel choir climax on “Let it Be,” perfectly capturing the song’s religious subtext; and a super-sexy, slow-grind blues version of “Why Don’t We Do it in the Road,” which sounds like Joplin reinventing McCartney’s throwaway number.
Taymor admits that this one isn’t on any Beatles greatest-hits records, but she says, “I wanted it sung by a woman, a woman with balls! (Laughs.) I felt it would show what that free, female kind of mood was that Lucy was coming into.”
Also amazing is a dreamy version of “Because,” Lennon’s awe-struck love song to the elements, set in the blissful comedown of a group acid trip in Upstate New York, the friends all sharing a moment of tranquillity before the darkness of war and betrayal comes. Taymor achieves an amazing effect by shooting underwater and then transposing it on the sky.
“We actually did the lip-syncing underwater,” explains Taymor. “They’re singing twice as fast: We sped it up so they could get more words in (before running out of breath), then slowed it down after.” The effect was later edited to hazy perfection, but this was an exceptional shot.
For the most part, the film is not lip-synced but sung live — something almost unheard of in movie musicals, but obviously appealing to Taymor’s stage background.
When asked why she prefers live takes on set, she responds, “You tell me. Don’t you feel it? You feel it because we’re recording in that scene, on that location, at that moment, just as you would with real dialogue. So obviously the actors are completely in that moment. Their singing isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t have to be: It’s got a reality. Most movies don’t do that; they push a button and you’re in some other recording with another emotion.”
Wood’s first song as Lucy was “If I Ever Fell in Love With You,” and Taymor notes that the actress was somewhat taken aback to learn they’d be singing live on set. Nevertheless, Taymor not only recorded live, she used Wood’s very first take.
“The vulnerability in her voice was so perfect,” says Taymor. “I didn’t even cut out of that first shot, because she was so extraordinary.”
A certain cynicism about the ’60s has infected some circles, where the starry-eyed idealism, consciousness expansion and generational revolt are met with a rolling of the eyes and a sneer at a “failed experiment.” Not so for Taymor: A child of the ’60s, she remembers it as it felt at the time, not through reports.
Taymor once said in an interview, “I’m not gonna spend two years on a film if I don’t think I can put myself into it.” Was this also the case with “Across the Universe?”
“To be honest,” says the director, “this is the most personal project I’ve ever done, because the characters of Max and Lucy are based on my older brother and sister. My sister was in SDS (Students for a Democratic Society, an antiwar group) — she was the head of it, actually. I’d talk to my sister when I was working on the script; she was in the marches, the whole “levitate the Pentagon” thing (where 35,000 antiwar protesters joked that they would levitate the U.S. military headquarters to exorcise evil spirits). Her husband was a radical, and he dropped Molotov cocktails. And my brother was a musician who lived in Haight-Ashbury (in San Francisco) and worked as a taxi driver. I wouldn’t call him a hippie, but he was in that mode. A lot of Max’s lines came from him.”
You don’t have to be a Beatles fan to enjoy the film, though being one helps. The director certainly is, and has scattered heaps of in-joke references throughout the film. Taymor is 40 years on from the release of “Abbey Road,” but her teenage crush on Paul McCartney is still apparent. She describes screening the film for the former Beatle, and watching it with him.
“I was sweating; I was so nervous,” recalls Taymor. “And then as soon as Jude started to sing ‘All My Loving,’ Paul started to sing it under his breath. I was so moved.”
“Across the Universe” opens on Aug. 9.